The Ministry of Labour’s website lays out the guidelines for what constitutes a legal internship in very clear terms, but how often do students and graduates actually encounter internship options that meet all of these criteria, outside of their school placement programs?
Even the most cursory job search will turn up innumerable internships whose descriptions are indistinguishable from unpaid labour.
Operating a business is challenging, and it’s not terribly surprising that internships have become a cost-saving measure for workplaces to get free labour, but cost-savings are no excuse for disrespecting the work and the financial needs of young workers.
Unfortunately, this system has become so entrenched in many industries that it’s difficult to get a paid job at all without an unpaid internship beforehand.
Businesses lack incentives to stop the internship structure because they provide them with workers that cost them something, and in practice lack many basic workers’ rights.
More importantly, the laws against unpaid internships don’t seem to be enforced in any meaningful way.
It’s repeatedly suggested that instead, students and recent graduates need to refuse to take these positions in protest—that advice being ignorant of the reality of a post-recession job market.
Graduates are so desperate for a job that they’ll jump at any possible opportunity to gain employable experience, and lack the privilege to refuse those offers.
More importantly, the Employment Standards Act (ESA) actually forbids interns to work under illegal conditions, and from waiving those rights themselves.
The government also disincentivizes interns from reporting their mistreatment. In regards to reporting illegal internship practices, the Ministry of Labour explicitly states on their website that, “it is important to note that an individual who provides anonymous information to the ministry may not have anti-reprisal protection.” As ostensible advocates for workers’ rights, they should be ashamed.
The lack of enforcement also serves to widen the gap in career potential between students from wealthy families, and students from lower-income families that are unable to support an unpaid intern financially. Wealthier parents are far less affected by the additional cost.
With businesses that lack incentives to obey the law and students that feel they aren’t able to speak out against the injustice of unpaid internships, it’s up to the government to do its job and actually enforce the laws it has made.
While recent high-profile enforcements at The Walrus and Toronto Life are signs of progress, the abundance of openly-advertised, unconcealed, illegal internships are a clear sign that there’s still a long way to go.